Hemiscyllium galei from Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua. Photo G. AllenWhen I heard that Dr. Gerald Allen and Roger Steene were going to West Papua to do a fish survey, I asked Roger to keep an eye out for this epaulette shark. During their survey, they were able to collect two specimens. I communicated with Gerry and provided information on the current taxonomic status of members in the genus. In 1983 there had been a revision of the genus (Dingerkus and DeFino, 1983) and the species that I had seen photos of from the Raja Ampats and that Gerry had collected were not included in the revision. Therefore, I was convinced the Raja shark was new. Being the world's greatest reef and rainbow fish taxonomist, Gerry went on a quest to see if indeed the West Papua shark was new. He visited museums in Europe and in the US and found out that the species from West Papua was actually Hemiscyllium freycineti (a species that was described in 1824). This was at odds with Dingerkus and DeFino who had used this moniker for a shark that was actually still undescribed (more on this in future blogs)!
It was about 10 years ago when I first met Max Ammer at a New Orleans DEMA. I was strolling past his booth at the show when I saw a photo of an amazing epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium sp.). I immediately recognized it as something different, as I had been studying these animals for many years. I asked Max where the photo was taken and he told me that it was photographed right off his resort. He also said the sharks were common in the area! I knew at that point I had to get to the Raja Ampats (West Papua)!
Since that time, Gerry has made a number of trips to West Papua and has found two more new species of Hemiscylliid sharks (which are often referred to as "walking sharks" in the popular press)! The scientific names of both species were auctioned off at the "Blue Auction" - while this is a not a common way to determine the species name of a new fish, it was done in this case to raise money to protect the Raja Ampat Islands, which are now part of a marine reserve. The two species (see above) were recently described by Gerry and Mark Erdmann in a Aqua International Journal of Ichthyology (vol 13, issues 3-4, 2008). Dr. Allen is now in Halmahera, Indonesia where another species of Hemiscyllium that may be new to science has been spotted.
Copyright (2008) Scott W. Michael